Friday, July 1, 2011

Overly Busy Buddhas

In response to my recent call for topics to talk about, regular reader Was Once offered the following:

Address the act of "doing," and why so many people are always busy... avoiding "being."

This is an interesting thing for me to consider right now, given that I have had an extended period of not working a regular job, not having multiple volunteer gigs to juggle, and generally not having a lot of "fixed" things I "need" to do. One thing that has become crystal clear during this time is how much I have, in the past, pinned my identity to what I do, what I accomplish, and what I haven't accomplished. There have been a number of times during the past several months where someone has asked me "What do you do?" and I have fumbled about, trying to list off the things I'm working on, instead of just saying something like "I'm in transition." I realized at some point that there was an underlying anxiety in these situations, a voice saying something like "Throw them a bone so you don't look lazy. Or confused. Or whatever it is you're afraid of looking like."

The reality, though, is that the question itself, one people seem so given to tossing around, demonstrates that sense that a person is only worth something if they do something. Lurking behind the question is often another one: "What have you done in the world lately?," which can easily turn into "Are you worth my attention or not?" in our fragile little minds.

So, when I think about why it is so many of us seem to be busy much of the time, it quickly becomes tied to a desire to demonstrate worthiness. Worthiness to yourself and to other people.

This is probably one of the main reasons why a lot of folks struggle to do practices like meditation on a regular basis. It can seem like doing nothing in the grand scheme of things, and isn't terribly impressive to offer in response to the question "What do you do?" or similar such questions. So much of the world seems to have succumbed to the view that life is solely, or mostly, about a series of social and economic exchanges - and that living a "good life" is built around "doing" as much as possible. Think of how much, for example, people with chronic illnesses or diminished capacities - even people who have given so much of their lives to others - think of how much they often struggle to accept a mostly being existence.

The first lines of Shitou's "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" go like this:

I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds.

There's a demonstration here, I believe, of the balance between action and non-action. Between doing and being done through. One of the problems with always being busy is that it sets forth a momentum of always being busy. Trying to get off that kind of karma train is pretty difficult. In fact, because of it's fierce momentum, it often takes something dramatic, something traumatic, to get derailed. And even then, many of us think that this derailing is something horrible, something that is going to destroy our very worthiness as humans, and so we put all our effort into catching back up to the very train that brought us down.

What do you think is behind your "busy"? What has helped you not do so much?


K Grey said...

Activity is not in itself a problem. Rather, it is the degree to which any activity is undertaken as a diversion from, or engagement with, what presents. In other words, our relation to the activity. Whether we are reacting as a character playing a role, or responding openly/mindfully. Ultimately, a perspective shift, as the actions themselves can appear to be the same.

Nathan said...

It's true that activity isn't a problem. However, I have seen a lot of folks - in Buddhist circles - wrap their busy lives in language about shifting perspectives and the emptiness of activity as a means of justification.

I totally see what you are saying here, but think it's vital that we watch the ways our minds incorporate the teachings in ways that keep us from being liberated.

Was Once said...

When you are "busy" to avoid any mind-body connection that signals how you really feel that becomes a problem. It just appears that you are the physical incarnation of papancha( “proliferation of thoughts”) and thus not present.

Nathan said...

"When you are "busy" to avoid any mind-body connection that signals how you really feel that becomes a problem."

Yes, this is a good way to put it.

Eliza Day said...

Busy or busy? I comment not as a Buddhist (I am not) but as a single mother of a 15 month old child. In my world, there is happy busy-ness (word nerds: what is the connection to "business"?)in which I do what I need to do to care for myself and my son. Beyond that, much is left undone that previous to parenthood I would not have tolerated, such as weeds in the garden, dirt in the corners, bills. The discussion seems to be around priorities. I need a hut, but the weeds I'll allow to grow. In fact, I may as well enjoy the weeds since I've been relieved of the free time required to pull them.

Nathan said...

I like the weeds too :)

Anonymous said...

What a great poem!

I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds.

I'm saving this one.

Just think, someone who is content being nothing and being covered with weeds, not beautiful flowers.
True contentment!

spldbch said...

Very good topic!!! I wonder if the constantly being busy thing isn't somewhat cultural, be it American culture or Western culture in general. I definitely think that American society places significant value on accomplishments; we define "success" by how far we go in our careers and how many material goods we amass.

You make a good point about how difficult it is for people who develop a chronic illness to adjust to a life of "just being." I've had a lot of patients like that in my therapy practice. Usually, they are people who were previously involve in all sorts of activities. When their health limits what they are able to do, they become extremely depressed.

Anonymous said...

"Busying" oneself may be an escape from oneself as one is. "Busying" oneself may be a need to control that what is.

"Being" as one is, and total acceptance of what is... yet building an empty hut.

Beautiful poem!


Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Great topic, Nathan (and Was Once!).

How much tied I am to this idea of myself as a competent person with a defined roles. So many I can think of . . . a social worker, a blogger, a meditator (yes, that one too :)), a mother, and many more. Behind the clinging is the fear of non existence or my sense of it.

Attached to the professional busyness is also some level of greed, of wanting more financial security, more money to live a certain kind of lifestyle. When in fact, the truth is I could certainly stop 'working' right now, and start living the Buddha's homeless life if I wanted.

Busyness is also a cope out, a resistance to facing the boredom of being with one self completely, including the aversion, the unpleasantness, and all the other difficult but necessary experiences that are a part of the path of liberation.

Thank you for engaging us in this most worthwhile discussion.

Much metta,


Nathan said...

"Busyness is also a cope out, a resistance to facing the boredom of being with one self completely..."

This is such a straight forward point for all of us to be with. Thank you.

To all those who love Shitou's poem - I chant it a few times of month as part of my chanting practice after meditation. Some of those words have really taken root in me now because of that.

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan,

This topic also has been much on my mind. I think about it especially while teaching yoga - how I get immediately uncomfortable when the class goes "slowly". It is really difficult for me to allow people to stay in their asana and just be. I feel like I am not doing my job somehow. More activity = better class. And yet, I know this isn't so. Still I struggle! Even with this weekend's workshop, while dyeing wool people were standing around chatting because it is a slow process. I was really uncomfortable with it - as if I was failing as a teacher because everyone wasn't busy every single second of the day. It came up over and over.

I wonder when teaching others in a non-Buddhist environment how much tolerance there is for not-doing. If you are meeting people where they are, can they also meet you where you are? I guess that is what teaching is all about, but I think this is a tough one because of what many have state above (cultural values and individual states of mind).

What do you think about it within a teaching context?

Nathan said...

Wow Robyn, that brought up a lot for me. Thank you for those questions and your experience.

This is something I have worried about in terms of yoga teaching. I'm not interested in running speedy classes that focus on people getting all sweaty and whatnot. If it happens, fine. But that's not my goal. I can imagine that's not your goal, either. But perhaps some of your students want something fast moving and "busy" because it matches the rest of their lives.

I kind of think that meeting your students where they are at isn't about offering speedy, sweat inducing classes because they think that's yoga. In fact, it seems to me that helping demonstrate how interesting and important it is to slow down and just be would be perfect for folks who have this idea.

Of course, it might be interesting for you to take a closer look at your own discomfort with slowness in your teaching. As a beginner yoga teacher, I've seen that same discomfort come up, tied to a sense that "I'm not good enough at this." Maybe yours is more about wanting your students to be happy or something, but that discomfort is a practice point.

I remember trying to fill my ESL classes with activity after activity as well. Rushing us through as much material as I could. But at some point, I realized that much of the learning happens in informal moments, when I'm not talking - when the students were taking something and trying it themselves (either in class or at home). That awareness slowed me down, and made me give space to my students to learn something for themselves that I might not even be teaching.

It seems like leaving students in asana, or allowing for a period of silence during meditation, offers that space to learn something you might not be teaching as well.